Saturday, March 18, 2006

Guest Blogger: Brendan Sullivan

Brendan Sullivan is a Corporate Creativity Coach. He helps organizational teams and leaders to create more dynamic solutions, more productive collaboration, more effective leadership and a healthier work environment where talented people can thrive. He has a checkered past which includes acting, producing radio, selling advertising and writing stuff. And of course he has a website,

Contemplations on Growing Up “Southside Irish”
By Brendan Sullivan

When your name is Brendan Patrick Sullivan, a certain level of Irish American wisdom and experience may be assumed. As an adult, I have been asked all sorts of things that you of other ancestry may not have: Do you support the IRA? Have you read “Angela’s Ashes”? Is the Guinness in a can as good as on tap? What are you doing for St. Patrick’s Day? Would you guest-write my blog with your thoughts on being Irish? I don’t think I look particularly Irish, I don’t have a brogue and I don’t belong to any Irish or Irish American organizations. So all I can assume is that my name conjures up these questions.

Such was not the case when I was a child. I grew up on the Southwest side of Chicago, in the 1960s. I was named after my father, and was the oldest of six children. And I never realized how “Irish” I was because everyone in our neighborhood, it seemed, was just as “Irish.” We lived down the street from the Flynns and the O’Connors and the Walshes and the McDonoughs. And everyone had about six kids. No one ever spotted me as being particularly Irish because everyone was. So no one ever said “Gosh, that’s a really Irish name.” What other kind of name was there?

And of course we all went to the Catholic school and church. Oh sure, there were a few outsiders, whom we referred to as the Publics. And we weren’t sure what the Publics did. They had little churches with various names that sounded alike. We had huge Gothic churches that were packed to the rafters every Sunday. The Publics went to a different school and didn’t wear uniforms to school. They had spring break and winter break. We had Easter break and Christmas vacation. And I never really got to know any of them that well. They were all going to roast in hell, anyway.

So my world was all Irish. And all Catholic. In fact, you didn’t live in a neighborhood, you lived in a parish (St. Cajetan, Christ the King, St. John Fisher, St. Barnabas, St. Christina, etc.) And yeah, there were a lot of pubs. I went to a Catholic all-boys high school where they would suspend you if you were caught drinking. But the school gave you a personalized porcelain beer stein when you graduated, and our senior prom favor was an etched brandy snifter. Hmmm?

There is something very insulating, and very provincial about the Southwest side. So that when I moved to the North side after college, I may as well have gone over to the Dark side. How could I? Lord knows there’s nothing north of 35th street. And I now live in a neighborhood with Applebaums and Espositos and Jacksons and Lis and Pashas and the gay couple down the street too.

But I return every year with my wife and four very Irish kids to sit with their multitudinous cousins and watch the parade, using my sister’s house two blocks off the route as our home base. And we eat corned beef sandwiches and wear green and you stand on the parade route with hundreds of thousands of others with equally Irish surnames, watching the endless stream of marching bands and firemen and policemen and veterans and clans and politicians and community groups and Knights of Columbus and there’s a feeling that you are a member of a very large green cult.

Oh, I’m still Southside Irish. I still believe that the White Sox are far superior to that team down the street. My parents and all of my brothers and sisters all live on the south side, or in the southwest suburbs. And there’s an Irish flag flying in front of our house this week. But it’s the only one on the block.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Suburban Man: Unhandy Man

By Rick Kaempfer

I used to feel guilty about my skills as a handyman. I don’t have any. I’m more of a “Wow your hands are really soft, do you use Palmolive?” kind of guy. If it’s broken, I can’t fix it. That’s not just being defeatist, that’s forty-plus years of experience saving me lots of heartache and humiliation. And I used to feel very guilty about it.

After all, I’m a man, a son, a husband, and a father. For years I felt the shameful sting of being unhandy. My widowed mother would give me that “Where did I go wrong?” look when she asked for my help with something in her house. My wife would give me that “I didn’t read the fine print when I married this guy” look every time something broke in our house. My three sons said “How can I ever be handy when you’re my father?” with their eyes. Each and every look from them was a dagger.

The shame I felt wasn’t confined to my family’s opinion of me—it was a society-wide shame. When we would go to neighborhood parties, the men would inevitably congregate near the grill, and I would pray the conversation never turned to home improvement projects. If it did, I knew better than to contribute anything at all to the conversation. I was certain that handy men could smell un-handiness on other men the way dogs smell fear. Any word, any exchanged eye-contact, would expose me. I had a key word or phrase in my back pocket just in case (say “intake manifold” or “drill chuck”), but I only uttered these in uncomfortable silence emergencies.

But that was the old me. I no longer feel guilty, and I no longer feel shame. I had an epiphany while a workman was fixing something in my handy friend’s house the other day: Nobody in the world is handy.

You read that correctly.

“Hey wait a minute!” you handy guys say, “I built the addition to my house myself with pinecones and a sandblaster.”

Fine. I’ll grant you, that’s quite impressive. But be honest with me; you’ve had to call a workman at least once or twice over the years, maybe even to “fix” something you already fixed, haven’t you? Did that person utter the following phrase?

“Whoever worked on this before didn’t know what the heck he was doing.”

That’s what I thought. Don’t feel bad. They say that to everyone, even other handy guys. Maybe you’ve even said it yourself when some unhandy friend asked you to help them out. It’s inevitable. It’s as much a part of the home improvement process as the building supplies themselves (note: I won’t attempt to identify what those are). Before the last nail is hammered, someone will utter the words:

“Whoever worked on this before didn’t know what the heck he was doing.”

It’s not an exaggeration to say I’ve heard it every single time anyone has done any work in my house. The first ten or fifteen years I heard it, I bought it. I figured I was simply living in bad homes with bad plumbing, appliances, electric, drywall, insulation, siding, windows, bricks, and concrete. Talk about bad luck. It wasn’t until I heard the same phrase being used at a handy friend’s house that I finally experienced an epiphany.

A gigantic weight has been lifted from my shoulders now that I know the secret. There are men all over the neighborhood working on their own homes who aren’t handy—they are at best “sort of handy.” And there are men all over the world making a living as “handymen” who will one day be called “someone who didn’t know what the heck he was doing” by the next handyman who comes by.

I’m no longer upset I can’t do it myself. From now on, when my wife or mother or sons give me that look, I’ll just walk away guilt free. When the guys at the neighborhood party start talking, I won’t be ashamed or avoid the conversation. I’ll just admit the truth unapologetically.

“I use the yellow pages, fellas, because I don’t know what the heck I’m doing.”

There I said it.

Now where did I put my Palmolive? My baby soft hands are feeling a little dry.

This article was written as a Suburban Man, but it also appears in the current issue of "Shore" magazine. See it in the magazine here....

If you want to check out any previous Suburban Man columns, click here:

By the way, this post is my 100th post on Rick's Blog. Thank you for all of your support and feedback.

Sunday, March 12, 2006


This article came out two years ago in Lake Magazine, but because today is Johnny Kaempfer's 8th birthday, and he's the star of this story, I'm re-posting it today. Happy Birthday, Johnny!

The Blue Bionicle
By Rick Kaempfer

From the "Best of 2004" issue

I remember the moment like it was yesterday. At the time I was working as a morning radio show producer in Chicago, but I was also running my own advertising agency and writing a novel and a non-fiction book. That particular Saturday morning I was sitting at the computer terminal in my basement putting the finishing touches on one of my books, when my middle son Johnny jumped on my lap. He was four years old.

Johnny is the kind of kid who regularly treats his father like monkey bars, so I continued with my writing undeterred, peaking around his bobbing head to see my manuscript on the computer screen. He began his usual rundown of his magical powers. On that particular day he was “Rainbow Dragon” and he was able to breathe fire on things to make the world a more colorful place. I nodded a few times and gave him a few of my usual “that’s nice Johnny” comments, when he grabbed both sides of my face. He stared into my eyes from just a few inches away.

“You never listen to me, Dad,” he said.

He was absolutely right. That was the day we officially instituted our new Saturday policy. Saturday became “Play with Dad Day,” and nothing in the world was allowed to supercede it. My oldest son Tommy was six at the time, and the following year my third son Sean was born. During those two years “Play with Dad Day” was sacrosanct. One simple day of undivided attention a week brought the four men of the house closer together.

Last fall my radio gig ended and my family faced a decision. Would I once again work those incredibly long and inconvenient hours, or would we shake things up a little bit? We opted for the latter. My wife went back to work full-time, and I stayed home. I was determined to make “Dad” my full-time job. It was easily the most rewarding, important, and difficult one of my five jobs, and it seemed like a no-brainer. At the time I didn’t understand why my wife was returning to work with such a big grin on her face.

My New Job

I thought I was just going to be full-time Dad. I didn’t realize that my new duties included keeping the house in order (another full-time job), and turning in my good cop badge for the dreaded bad cop badge. It also included giving up my traditional “Play with Dad Day” so that it could be transformed into “Play with Mom Day.” In short, I was no longer going to be the fun one.

I spent the first few months of our new arrangement struggling with my new assignment. I was in the same house as my boys, but it didn’t feel like I was spending quality time with them. Again, my son Johnny came to the rescue. He was sitting at the kitchen table playing with his Bionicle robots when he began the usual question and answer session. I was barely paying attention because I was making dinner at the time.

“Dad, what’s your favorite robot?” he asked.

“The blue one,” I said half-heartedly as I always did.

“Dad, we need to chat,” Johnny said.

It was such a strange comment from my son that it snapped me out of my usual half-hearted multi-tasking. The noodles didn’t need to be watched for another five minutes, his little brother Sean was happily sipping his milk, his big brother Tommy was working on his homework, and there wasn’t a reason in the world why I couldn’t sit down with Johnny and chat for a few moments. I’m glad that I didn’t come up with an excuse.

“What do you want to chat about?” I asked, pulling up a chair.

“Why do you like the blue one so much?” he asked.

“Because blue is my favorite color,” I said.

“But the blue one is Tommy,” he explained. As he said it, I saw the pain in his face for the first time. “The red one is me.”

Learning a New Language

I realized my brain had stopped listening to my boys as soon as they began talking about things I didn’t understand, and that I had been answering a loaded question incorrectly for months. My inattention had caused me to inadvertently hurt Johnny’s feelings, and I’m certain it had done the same thing to his older brother Tommy. That night I began to make a concerted effort to educate myself in the things that interested them.

And it wasn’t easy. When we got into a discussion of Bionicles and Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh, they almost lost me. It was like trying to learn three new languages. Each of the Bionicles and Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh characters has a different name and nearly all of them are unpronounceable. If I wasn’t determined to learn about them, and let’s face it—it was making my brain hurt, I wouldn’t have made another important discovery. When I pointed to the blue Bionicle Robot in Johnny’s “Bionicle Book,” I was excited to finally intelligently contribute to the conversation.

“That’s Tommy,” I said.

“Hey!” Tommy protested.

Johnny, the emotionally injured middle son, snickered as his older brother got upset with me.

“What’s wrong?” I asked Tommy.

“I am NOT the blue one,” Tommy protested.

“But Johnny said that you were,” I explained.

That’s when the punching began. I had seen this seemingly incomprehensible fighting between my two oldest sons many times. In the past I hadn’t bothered to understand the basis of the argument because it seemed so frivolous. I don’t know what made me do it, but instead of stepping in to break up the fight, I read the description of the “Gali-Nuva” Blue Bionicle. The translation to this perpetual fight was right there in blue and white.

The blue Bionicle was a girl.

The Circle of Fatherhood

I hadn’t realized it until that night, but I was making the same mistake that I always blamed my own father for making. My dad was a German immigrant, and my interests (baseball, comedy and the Beatles) were about as foreign to him as the Bionicles were to me. He tried to get me interested in his favorite things like soccer and polka instead of trying to understand what I liked. I really don’t blame him now that I see how much harder it is to learn new things when you get older. But after months of studying, I’m nearly fluent in Bionicle. I’m still in remedial Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh, but I’m making progress.

I’ve even discovered ways to merge my interests with my boys’ interests in some cases. For instance, Johnny loves cowboys and I love television, so I introduced him to the Lone Ranger, and now we watch it together. Tommy loves astronomy and I love comedy. So, I showed him the comedic potential of my favorite planet “Uranus.” Granted, his teacher wasn’t too thrilled with our shared interests when he brought up “Uranus” at school, but I’m sure she understands that it was for the greater good.

Living in the moment

Every time I ask veteran parents about their most cherished parental memories, they always fondly recall the days before they lost their children to adolescence. I may end up losing my boys too, but I’m trying my best to savor every moment before that happens. And I’m praying I still have the energy in my tired old bones to make the same effort for my youngest son Sean when he starts talking to me about things that I don’t understand.

At the very least my boys won’t grow up saying “My Dad was never around” or “My Dad didn’t take the time to care about what interested me.” My home will never be profiled in “Town and Country” magazine, and I still have to be the bad cop when things go awry, but I’m a little more comfortable with my new assignment these days. Until they get sick of me, every day will be “Play with Dad Day,” and together we’ll eagerly await the nightly return of the good cop, the Blue Bionicle; their mom.

Coming up next week: New SHORE MAGAZINE ARTICLE--"By the Dawn's Early Light"